Now he’s back in another kind of conflict, the alarms and confusions of daily life.
While this novel is fiction, in the preface we are told that the author used authentic content, such as letters, diary entries and published sources of her own family, her great grandparents in particular. Her discomfort in the racism within’ her family is noted, but to ignore the attitudes of the times would be a disservice to the truth, especially of the hardships faced in the fight for equality. Both Frank and Sarah Dawson have thoughts that are easy to judge, such as the ‘distastefulness of mix racing’ Sarah feels. But then you have to sit with that thought, surrounded by the ignorance of the times, these are taught attitudes.
The novel opens with a nightmare Frank Dawson has just awaken from. Despite his wife Sarah’s intuitive nature, and the troubling feeling that remains, he can’t put much stock into dreams, he has enough pressing issues in his daily life than to allow a stranger in his sleep to torment him. As editor and part owner of the Charleston News and Courier his voice is his tool, his opinions strong and not always popular in the south where the war refuses to remain in the past. Death threats aren’t unusual for a man who tries to give black people political power. In fact, his ‘Southern roots’ certainly are in question, being England born can he really be one of them? Maybe he isn’t even really a Captain either! He loves his Charleston, and he wants it to thrive, but to understand the anger we must travel further back.
It is 1861, young Sarah Morgan is nineteen-years old and the ‘war is scattering her family’. The south doesn’t want the north interfering in its affairs, and the anti-slavery perspective isn’t one the south shares, after all they believe they ‘take care of their slaves’ and that they’d be helpless and lost without such care. Fate is about to turn against her family, with the war taking her brothers and threatening every southerner.
In Southampton, Englishman Frank Dawson stands on the deck of the Nashville (a steamer, once a mail ship to be fitted for war) as one of the crew. Unlike the other men, Dawson has a fine education, can speak four languages, read music and has a gentleman’s manners. Certainly he doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the rougher men. Little can one imagine he will rise through the ranks of the Confederate navy. In America, Dawson’s ‘network of friends’ and his intelligence, connections will teach him about the south. Here, he will support his brothers in arms against the north. From the water, he will turn to the land joining into the army. Sarah in the meantime taps into her own shocking nature, finding it necessary to arm herself with a pistol. They are under siege and must run from Baton Rouge with whatever they can carry. Chaos reigns, everything is in ruins, as are the people after the shelling. Sarah is fierce, and often the cries in her diary are, “Oh if I were a man!” because then she could fight off these hypocritcal Yankees, who are destroying everything people like her family have worked for, killing off all the men! He family gets smaller and smaller with each death. It is a world now of devastated women and children.
At the end of war, Dawson has been wounded, desperate for money and a job he soon has an offer to work for the Examiner, but soon Dawson meets B. F. Riordon, with whom he would later create a newspaper with. But first, as the assistant editor for the Charleston Mercury his views on the Fourteenth amendment don’t sit well with the bosses, staunch supporters of Confederacy, not one’s to ‘swallow’ the end of their empire and embrace the future. With the paper failing, it’s an opportunity for Dawson and Riordon to run a paper with truth and promote their south.
Soon, Frank Dawson and Sarah Morgan’s paths merge when Jem, Sarah’s brother, is seriously injured during an ‘incident’ and Dawson rushes to be at his side. So too, does his love blossom for Sarah. One small hitch, Dawson has a wife already but one who is gravely ill. After her passing, the two bond over literature but how to convince Sarah to marry him, particularly when she has no interest in doing ‘what is expected’ of women? The two begin to write each other, and I’m guessing the letters were authentic, oh what a dying art!
You know they marry, or else how could there be this very book about the author’s great grandparents? Dawson’s fall could come from anywhere, his progressive views (such as his stance on anti-lynching), the stories he prints that tell the truth about crimes by condemning always what is wrong, even if it means exposing ‘white South Carolinians’, particularly in the case of the Hamburg Militiamen massacre. History sidenote: Hamburg was an all black Republican community who had members in the militia, which were formed to safeguard said communities. Research the Hamburg Massacre, it will explain the gravity of the situation and why siding with the black community infuriated citizens. There was courage in Dawson and Riordon chosing to speak in defense of the militia, the truth can be dangerous! Lynchings, racism, rapes, war… this novel deals with seriously taboo subjects, history rears its ugly head.
Then there is the sleazy neighbor Dr. Thomas Mcdow who seduces Dawson and Sarah’s beautiful, young, Swedish governess Hélène. A man with murderous intentions who feels Dawson is interfering in his every plan, threatening to ruin him. Not that I particularly liked Hélène but I imagine being 22 and working as a sort of servant, though maybe higher on the totem pole than the other help, she’d be hungry for love, a husband. Sure, she was lucky to be a part of a respectable, important family but the young still have their fanciful ideas and are ripe for certain worldly wolves. What will it mean for Frank and Sarah?
There is a lot happening in Dawson’s Fall, looking back into your family history can be crushingly heartbreaking but it’s only because you are on the outside and know the end. As in all lives, there are sweet spots despite the tragic curtain fall. For fans of historical fiction, there is quite a bit of the past to chew on, a lot of shame as well. It seems Frank changed with the times and tried to be just, and that says a lot when it’s with great risk you go against popular thought. Morality is a strange beast, there are certain wrongs against nature that no amount of justification can excuse. History isn’t pretty, for one family war took and gave in equal measure but sometimes it is those closer to home that can seal your doom.
Publication Date: May 14, 2019
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Sarah Crichton Books